Sunday, January 15, 2017

SpaceX Falcon Returns to Flight

Falcon 9 rocket on the pad at Vandenberg AFB. Credit: SpaceX.
Last September in 2016, a Falcon rocket exploded during a pad engine test, prompting a cancellation of SpaceX flights until the cause could be determined. Engineers eventually discovered the fault was in a construction error in the second stage liquid oxygen tank. With the corrections having been completed, a new rocket was prepared for the launch of a series of communications satellites.
Blast off from California. Perfect launch.
Credit: SpaceX.
Shortly before 10 am (Pacific time), SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 Iridium satellites from its pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. The first stage separated on time and the second stage carried the swarm of satellites into their planned orbits.

Touchdown! Falcon first stage lands on a barge in the Pacific. Credit: SpaceX.
As usual, SpaceX continues its mission to perfect landings of the rocket first stage, so it can be used again later. This time the rocket stage landed in the Pacific Ocean, on the landing barge named "Just Read The Instructions." This was the first successful landing in the Pacific. Four have landed in the Atlantic on board the landing barge "Of Course I Love You." Another successful landing took place in Texas on land.
You can read more details about this mission at at

ISS Spacewalkers Replace Batteries, Part 2

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough exits the station through the Quest airlock. His suit had the red stripe, allowing flight controllers to easily identify which astronaut was visible on camera.

On Friday January 13, American EVA 38 took place to complete the battery change-out that was the focus of last week's spacewalk. Expedition 50 commander Shane Kimbrough led the EVA, making his fourth spacewalk, while he was joined by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who was making his first spacewalk. 

Kimbrough takes a great selfie, focusing on his reflective helmet which shows the Earth in the background. It's also a great view of the helmet assembly, with its extra lighting, cameras for astronaut POV, and solar protection covering on visor.
 The mission of this EVA was to complete the switchout of the older Nickel-Hydrogen truss batteries with the newer Lithium-Iron batteries. This power changeout has been underway for a long time, as astronauts have used several spacewalks and several robotic arm procedures to replace cables, switch power routings, and finally relocate old batteries to storage and install new batteries on the Truss.

Just hanging out, over 180 miles above the Earth. Easy Peasy. Picture from Thomas Pesquet's camera.
The station's Truss battery sections are in 4 parts, due to how the truss components were launched and assembled. The oldest Truss is designated P6. It's oldest batteries were changed out to newer lithium-hydrogen batteries (new then) by shuttle astronauts back in 2009 and 2010. But now the batteries will need to be replaced so that the station can continue its work-life towards 2024, so new batteries are required, and the new lithium-ion batteries are the new technology. It's planned to take up to 4 years to replace all the Ni-H2 batteries. These spacewalks replaced the oldest Ni-H2 batteries on Truss S-4.

Inside part of the S-4 Truss segment.
The battery change-out was completed a couple of hours ahead of schedule, so the astronauts used the rest of the EVA time to accomplish some tasks which would have been done on the next scheduled spacewalk. The total time of the spacewalk was just under six hours.
Back inside. Peggy Whitson assisted the astronauts in removing themselves from the EVA suits.
You can read all the details of this complex mission at

Sunday, January 8, 2017

ISS: Spacewalkers Replace Batteries, Part 1

Astronauts Peggy Whitson (L) and Shane Kimbrough (R) prepare to leave the airlock. There have been 196 spacewalks in support of the International Space Station so far.

On Friday, January 6th, astronauts from Expedition 50 of the ISS exited the Quest Airlock for a six and a half hour EVA to begin the four-year process of changing out the station's main batteries, which are reaching their serviceability lifespan. The new Li-Ion batteries were brought to the station on the Japanese HTV-6 cargo spacecraft on the external pallet. Using the stations remote-control arm, the batteries were removed from the craft and placed in the are of the exchange, which for this mission was the S4 segment of the main truss. There was a lot of work to do in preparation for this part of the battery exchange, both inside and out of the station. Relays and cables to affected station segments were checked, secured, and switched to other areas for the duration of the exchange.

Shane Kimbrough looks quite pleased to be performing his 3rd career spacewalk. Station solar panels in the background.

During the last week, ground controllers used one of the access arms to begin a series of shuffling old batteries from their home on the truss and replacing them with the new batteries stored in temporary positions on the truss. The purpose of this EVA was to finish certain installation tasks that could not be done with the robotic arms. It proves again how the human presence can never be completely removed from space activities for maximum efficiency. 
Astronaut Shane apparently enjoys selfies. Up there, who wouldn't?
Peggy Whitson during suit preparation. This was her 7th career EVA.
The EVA concluded with successful connections of three of the six replaced batteries. Part two of this EVA is scheduled for Friday January 13th, when Kimbrough goes outside again, this time with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, to complete the hookups for the remaining three batteries. The new lithium-ion batteries are a great improvement over the older nickel-hydrogen batteries. The old batteries will be moved by the robotic arm onto the storage pallet on the HTV-6. They will burn up when the HTV-6 is plunged into the atmosphere over the Pacific for disposal.

For a very detailed description of the EVA, go to:

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Expedition 50 Celebrates Christmas in Space

Merry Christmas from the crew of Expedition 50 on board the International Space Station. Hope Santa has boosters to reach that high up in orbit.

The crew of the ISS is celebrating Christmas with light duties today, and getting some precious personal time. They'll be working on spacesuits tomorrow, in preparation for an upcoming EVA.
Japan's HTV-6 robotic cargo supply spacecraft is grappled by the CanadArm robotic arm under control of astronauts in the station.

Earlier this month, on December 13, the ISS received a new arrival in the form of a Japanese cargo spacecraft, operated by remote control, carrying supplies and experiments to the Expedition 50 crew. The HTV-6 blasted off from Tanegashima, and island off Japan, on December 9 and arrived on the 13th. One of the experiments on board is the KITE - Kounatori Integrated Tether Experiment - an electrodynamic tether which will eventually be developed to help remove space debris in the future.
About 8,000 pounds of equipment, fuel, batteries, supplies and hardware were brought to the station.
The HTV-6 was docked to the station's Harmony module, and is currently one of 4 vehicles docked to the station.

Currently occupied Docking Ports.

This is the sixth spacecraft of the current HTV design from Japan. There are planned to be three more launches of the current design. Engineers are designing the next generation HTV, designated HTV-X, which will use a service module for propulsion and allow for more cargo to be delivered. That launch is expected in 2021.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Two Re-entries: One Good, One Bad.

A Cygnus resupply vehicle grappled with the ISS robotic CanadArm.
There have been two fiery re-entries in the ISS program lately. One went well, the other did not. On November 27, the Cygnus OA-5 cargo spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and burned up (along with a lot of space station trash) over the Pacific Ocean. On its way out, it performed some vital services. After undocking from the ISS to make room for future cargo deliveries, the Cygnus performed a test of the fire system aboard the spacecraft, with the goal to observe how fires behave in a zero0G environment. After the succesfull test, ground engineers operated the ship to a new high altitude Cygnus record of 500 kilometers, and then launched a series of four LEMUR cubesats. Two days llater the engineers guided Cygnus to its end.
Fiery breakup of an earlier Cygnus mission.
Night launch of a Progress supply mission.
Things did NOT go as planned for a Russian resupply mission to the ISS station. On Thursday December 3, Progress MS-04 blasted off from Baikonur with supplies for the astronauts in ISS. It was the 4th use of the revamped Progress series of robotic cargo ships. As engineers are still verifyiing safety tests with the new Progress and Soyuz variations, the plan was to continue using the 2-day orbital approach technique to the station rendezvous. Something went wrong during the third stage separation. Observers noted the fiery re-entry and crash over southern Russia. This marks the 3rd Progress failure in 65 launches.

Chinese Space Station Success

Illustration of China's new space station. Credit: China Daily.
China has made more progress in its ability to keep its Taikonauts in space for more than short stays in a Soyuz-like Shenzhou capsule. Much of the western media does not cover Chinese space efforts the way they cover the ISS, but a lot of that has to do with the restrictive nature of the Chinese government. China's space program is in a phase similar to that of the early Soviet space station stages, gradually building bigger space stations and living longer in orbit.
This illustration demonstrates how the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft would appear docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: Xinhua.
The Chinese station was launched in mid-September from the Jiuquan satellite launch center from pad LC-43. It was originally built as a back-up for Tiangong 1, but with changes in the CHinese space program, it now serves a purpose to help Chinese Taikonauts prepare for a much larger space station program in 2018. With modifications made to the station, it will test new technologies needed for China's new modular-design station, similar to the transition Russia made from the Slayut station designs to the Mir station.
Crew of Shenzhou 11. Commander Jing Haipeng and Pilot Chen Dong. Credit: Xinhua.
Shenzhou 11 blasted off from the same pad that launched the station. The mission used the Long March 2F/G (Y11) rocket. Lift off took place on October 14. The government had been somewhat silent on the mission, finally announcing the crew shortly before the spacecraft arrived at the pad. The primary mission for the crew is to successfully dock with the station, and then break the Chinese record for an extended 30-day stay in orbit. The station does come equipped with some science experiments, mostly designed to help the taikonauts perform health studies and experiments. There is also a Chinese version of the robotic arm, which will become very essential to future operations.

Another illustration of a Shenzhou spacecraft docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: ?
On Thursday, November 17, the Shenzhou 11 undocked from the station and returned its crew safely to the Earth. The mission achieved its major goals. On Friday, the spacecraft parachuted to a safe landing in Mongolia. 
There is some disagreement in Western Press about future missions to the Tiangong 2. Probably due to mistakes in Chinese government planning announcements. In one scenario, this Shenzhou 11 mission would end up as the only manned mission to the station. Another scenario includes a robotic supply mission to the station, to test the ability of a remote-piloted craft to resupply future missions. And yet another scenario includes a three-man mission later this year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Expedition 50/51 Ascends to ISS

Dramatic night time launch of Soyuz MS-03.
Reinforcements arrived for the current Expedition 50 on the ISS. On Thursday, Soyuz MS-03 blasted off from the Russian space complex in Baikonur. On board the spacecraft was truly multi-national crew, each person from a different space agency. Commanding the Soyuz spacecraft was Oleg Novitskiy from Roscosmos (Russia), making his second flight. Also aboard was Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency (France), making his first flight. And finally, there was also Dr. Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut (USA) who holds the record as the woman with the most hours in space. She is scheduled to be the first woman to command the ISS for a second time, when she takes command for Expedition 51.
ISS Television camera picks up the approach of Soyuz MS-03.
Rather than take the shorter direct-to-rendezvous approach, the craft took two days to reach the ISS. Although the new MS series of Soyuz capsules has no problems using the 4-orbit rendezvous approach method, Russian engineers are still running tests and observing results during the two-day approach.  The crew docked with the ISS on the 19th.
All of Expedition 50 together now. Front row: Peggy Whitson (L), Oleg Novitskiy (center), Thomas Pesquet (R). Back row: ISS Commander Shane Kimbrough (L), Sergey Rizhikov (Center), and Andrey Borisenko (R).